Most local government consolidation focuses on the municipal level. New Jersey has too many towns and cities, each needing its own costly and inherently inefficient government. The result has been state residents paying the highest property taxes in the nation.
Counties, too, could benefit from regionalizing some functions. Recently, we suggested working toward a shared pool of heavy equipment that counties use only occasionally, so that each doesn’t need to buy the whole high-priced assortment of road and construction equipment.
A more obvious opportunity for years has been the expensive jails that each county builds and operates. Larger institutions with more residents are by their nature more efficient and cost-effective, so having them serve multiple counties would yield significant savings. Many costs are fixed, so when other jurisdictions send more inmates and pay for them, most of that increase in revenue can be used instead of money from taxpayers.
Eight years ago, Cumberland County gave this form of shared service a try, accepting inmates from Gloucester County into unfilled beds in its own jail. That allowed Gloucester to become the first county in the state to have no jail of its own.
Soon afterward Atlantic County, a leader in savings through consolidation, agreed to take about 70 female inmates from Burlington County to help utilize the available capacity of its jail. The agreement called for up to 150 Burlington inmates to be housed at the Mays Landing facility. An average of 65 Burlington inmates was expected to result in payments of about $2 million a year from Burlington County, which expected to save a similar amount in annual corrections costs by shutting its old and costly Corrections and Work Release Center in Pemberton Township.
Jail consolidation at local, state and federal levels was an emerging national trend at the time, and the Atlantic County freeholders also joined other counties in funding a study to determine the feasibility of consolidating the correctional housing requirements of five counties into a regional jail facility or system. That didn’t more forward, but in the following years individual counties sought to reduce or close their jails and pay to house their inmates elsewhere, or accept the inmates of others to more fully use their facilities.
Additional pressure to consolidate has come from bail reform in New Jersey, which has significantly reduced inmate populations.
Now Atlantic County is considering whether to expand its jail by about 256 beds to accommodate inmates from Cumberland County, which is closing its jail. Atlantic already has a contract for up to 200 inmates from its neighbor, but doesn’t have room for them all.
The possibility has some advantages besides the savings from efficiency for both counties. Part of the finished but unused plans for a new jail that Cumberland previously intended to build but then abandoned could be used to construct four pods with about 64 beds per pod. Income from hosting Cumberland inmates would cover Atlantic’s building and staffing costs. And Atlantic could hire some corrections officers from the closing Cumberland jail.
Atlantic County, though, would need to be certain that it will continue to get inmates from other counties to fill the expanded jail, preferably with long-term contracts. And even though state law was changed to ensure inmates when released are returned to where they resided prior to incarceration, officials should make sure that is actually happening as expected.
Absent a stronger state-led effort at local jail consolidation, efforts by counties to continue in that direction are welcome and should remain beneficial. The due diligence of careful review, discussion by individuals and input from the public is essential to ensure the desired outcome.